Monday, August 30, 2010

The Islamic Center Controversy in America - II - Richard Peres

This article was published in Today's Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, on August 30, 2010, also available online at

It took only three months or so to get American public opinion opposed to the planned Islamic community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York City.

It took only three months to have most Republican senators, representatives, governors and candidates for office join in, and even some key Democratic politicians to oppose their own president of the United States. All you need is a blog, an emotional issue and lots of misinformation. Facts? Not necessary.

Enter Pamela Geller, a woman who lives in the upper West Side of New York City. She started a blog in 2005 called Atlas Prior to May of this year her blog got little attention, except by the extreme right wing in America, who loved her. Perhaps it was because of her crazy stories and allegations, including that Obama is the illegitimate son of Malcolm X; that he changed his name to Barack Obama after visiting Pakistan in the 1980s because of jihad, that Obama is really a Muslim with a hidden agenda, that “everything he has done so far is to foster America’s submission to Islam,” that the “Nazis adopted jihad,” that Israel should nuke Tehran, Mecca and Medina and even Europe, and the promotion of other allegations that are too vicious, vile and disgusting to mention here in Turkey or anywhere for that matter.

Well, you get the picture. (By the way, Barack Obama was always his real name).

This person, with no background in Middle Eastern politics or history, and no credibility, wrote a blog on May 6, 2010, with the following title, “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in the Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction.” Here is an excerpt from this article: “This best demonstrates the territorial nature of Islam. This is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident … And what about the Hagia Sophia, the ancient cathedral of the church of Constantinople, one of the great buildings of the world, the grandest church in Christendom at that time and for 1,000 years thereafter -- and now a mosque? The Aya Sofya mosque -- they didn’t change the name, just Islamified it.”

A mind-boggling comparison

This is quite the historical comparison: converting an empty old building on Park Place into a community center, providing daycare services, meeting rooms and community facilities much needed in lower Manhattan with Mehmet II’s defeat of the Byzantines (who deserves credit for not destroying the Hagia Sophia). Later on a TV show, she claimed that the imam of the mosque had help fund the “jihad genocidal flotilla.”

A week later, Andrea Peyser, a columnist for the NY Post -- a paper expert at getting people excited -- picked up on Pamela’s blog and wrote a column, “Mosque Madness at Ground Zero,” in which she stated: “A mosque rises over Ground Zero. And fed-up New Yorkers are crying, ‘No!’ A chorus of critics -- from neighbors to those who lost loved ones on 9/11 to me -- feel as if they’ve received a swift kick in the teeth.” A few days after that yet another columnist, Diane West, of the right-wing Washington Examiner, wrote yet another fiery article, this one entitled “A Mosque to Mock 9/11’s Victims and Families” -- an unfounded accusation if ever there was one.

The mainstream media then picked up on the “Ground Zero mosque,” which has a certain deceiving ring to it. They labeled it a controversy, facilitating a media explosion, although it was not a controversy during its planning phase. “Ground Zero mosque” is certainly easier to write than the “Islamic community center two blocks from the WTC site in what is now an abandoned building.” The proposition was simple and clear: The people who attacked the WTC now want a mosque rising “over ground zero.” CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, the NY Times, LA Times, etc., all brought in opposing sides to discuss the “controversy.”

Oppostion to the ‘Ground Zero mosque’

Then the CNN poll came out showing most Americans opposed the “Ground Zero mosque.”

Where there is a poll, you will find a politician, not taking the lead, but following, with a few exceptions, one being Barack Obama. On Aug. 13 the president said: “This is America. Our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” And then Michael Bloomberg, NYC’s mayor, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, reminding his audience about bigotry against Jews and Catholics in the past, said, “But we would be untrue to the best parts of ourselves -- and who we as New Yorkers and Americans -- if we said no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.”

Obama’s statement, in a Congressional election year, unleashed a torrent of opposition, following the polls, exploiting emotions and trying to gain an advantage. Three days later, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and possibly a Republican candidate for president in 2012, compared the supporters of the proposed mosque, whom he referred to as “radical Islamists,” to Nazis when interviewed by Fox News. Republicans across the nation followed suit, leading demonstrations, giving speeches, although trying not to be viewed as against religious freedom, but just “against the mosque at ground zero.”

Congressmen implored Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the funding of the mosque.

Moreover, even some Democratic politicians switched sides, including the top Democrat in the US Senate, Harry Reid. Facing a tough re-election race in Nevada this Fall, he stated that he was opposed to the center and urged “all parties to work with local community leaders to find a more appropriate site.” His Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, said that Obama’s support of the building “ignored the wishes of the American people, this time at the expense of victims of 9/11 and their families.”

Of course, the issue has grown in complexity, with various NGO’s taking sides, with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, and with even an organization that includes victims of 9/11 supporting the center.

But when we step back, we can see how the damage was done. One blogger, with a track record of hatred against Muslims, was able to easily equate the attacks on 9/11 with all of Islam, and also attribute to them a deplorable insensitivity to the feelings of Americans. It was extraordinarily easy to do, to rally most Americans against the project with the [distorted] image of the “mosque rising above ground zero.”

And once the polls kicked in, most politicians followed, a perfect issue to exploit a US president with a Muslim name in a congressional election year. It does not bode well for the need to educate Americans on the world that resides outside my İstanbul window.


*Richard Peres is an American writer living in İstanbul.

30 August 2010, Monday

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mosque Controversy in America - Part I - Today's Zaman

Today's Zaman, one of Turkey's largest newspapers, published my article on 8/27/2010.               

I recently asked my wife’s niece, who is Turkish, “What do you think of the mosque controversy in New York City?” She replied, “What controversy?” Most people in Turkey seem unaware of this front-page story regarding Islam in the US.

The plan to build an Islamic community center in a building a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York City created a firestorm in the US more than a week ago. The mayor of New York, who is Jewish, supports the project, as does President Barack Obama, in the name of religious freedom. But a CNN poll found that 68 percent of Americans opposed the center, which will include a mosque, so close to the target of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

It is a $100 million project that will have a multicultural and religious board of directors, and will support the entire community in that part of lower Manhattan. The center will add 15 stories to a non-descript building not at the World Trade Center site, but two to three blocks away.

Obama said, at the White House’s annual iftar dinner, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.” However, his view is in the minority, based on the CNN poll and the loud opposition of many Republicans and other conservative leaders.

Many Americans understand that the Sept. 11 attacks, although carried out in the name of Islam by its participants, were not representative of the one-and-a-half billion Muslims in the world. But that level of understanding and awareness seems to be a minority view, unfortunately. Last year when Barack Obama toured the Middle East, a poll found that 46 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Muslim countries, compared to 20 percent who viewed them favorably. Certainly unfamiliarity is partially to blame. Six in 10 Americans do not personally know a practicing Muslim, and those who do have a more favorable view than those who do not. Three in four Americans do not have a passport, making personal familiarity with any foreign country problematic.

I came to Turkey at the beginning of 2010 to teach (at Bilkent University) and write a book relating to Turkey. I found that people who consider themselves Muslim are hardly monolithic: some are more secular than others; some are observant, while others are not; some women want to wear headscarves, while others are uncovered; some are Sunni, or Shiite, or Alevi, all with different religious viewpoints. And Muslims also support a variety of political parties and ideologies, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), from the left to the right and everywhere in between.

Last June I returned to the US for a month and was anxious to share with my friends and relatives my experiences in Turkey and what it was like to live in a country in which everyone was Muslim and did not fit the American stereotype. But Americans I spoke to seemed oblivious to any diversity in the Muslim world. It was a concept they had a hard time grasping, perhaps because the news that dominates the airways regarding Islamists relates to the insurgents in Iraq, finding Osama bin Laden, repressive policies of the Taliban and the latest suicide attack somewhere in the world.

I was asked, however, about the Mavi Marmara incident. I suggested that the people on the ship meant well, that they were not the aggressive ones and that the Israelis caused the incident by taking a militaristic stance. No one agreed. The standard response was: “Israel represents the only hope in the Middle East. They are simply protecting themselves from terrorists and rocket attacks.” One person wondered what had happened to me while I was in Turkey.

Criticism of Israel is almost nonexistent in the US and has been politically incorrect for as long as I can remember. In fact, Republicans and Democrats will criticize each other for failing to support Israel enough. When Israel seems to be too aggressive, too zealous in its foreign policy and acting with a “besieged mentality,” it is given the benefit of the doubt and politicians tread lightly on any negative comments. Or they qualify their criticisms with, “It’s for Israel’s own good.” Even Barack Obama -- a liberal, enlightened and intelligent US president if there ever was one -- did not condemn the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara and only questioned the continuation of the Gaza blockade in response to global outcries over the incident.

Perhaps it is that lack of familiarity mentioned earlier. America is very much an isolated country, separated by the world’s two largest oceans. It is a big island. I lived all my life in America, taught International Politics and International Marketing at American universities, as recently as two years ago, and found this lack of familiarity with the world in young people as well, I am sorry to say. For each class I handed out blank maps of the world and asked students to fill in the names of the countries. The average number of countries correctly identified was less than 10, just 5 percent of the world. And no student ever located Turkey correctly.

During my visit to the States I sent a package to Turkey and, as a joke, tried paying with a Turkish TL 10 note. The woman at the UPS store counter looked at it and asked, “What’s this?” I replied that it’s from Turkey. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know Turkey had its own money.”

I am not sure exactly what, if anything, was inside the brain of that young woman, but I can admit to you that I too was fairly ignorant of Turkey before arriving here last January. I had been to Europe dozens of times, for pleasure and work, and was very familiar with Asia and Latin America. But Turkey? Yes, I figured Turkey had its own money. But I knew little of its history, of the birth of modern Turkey in 1923, the story of Atatürk, its political and cultural history, its imperial past, its rapid modernization in the last couple of decades and the push and pull of its secularism/Islamism conflicts over the years.

Perhaps there is an invisible wall when you reach the Bosporus coming from the West. For academics and foreign policy creators, Turkey may be the bridge to the Middle East, a “model” of Middle Eastern democracy. Perhaps. But it is part of another very different part of the world, one that gets thrown into the same category as Iraq and Afghanistan, the topics for 90 percent of the news coming from the Middle East for Americans. When they hear that Turkey is 99 percent Muslim that is all they need to hear. The monolithic view of the Muslim world automatically switches on and there is not much else to say.

That wall exists for academics as well. When I get together with my academic friends in the US they seem to know very little about Turkey -- “They’re against Israel, aren’t they?” -- and the interest to learn more is simply not there. The subject changes fast. I get asked little about the country where I now live and what is happening here. On the other hand, Americans love Turkey as tourists: the food, the people, the hospitality, the ancient sites and the magnificent, unequaled skyline of İstanbul. They may even realize that Turkey does have its own money.

So it is not surprising that a few neoconservative writers in America can make an Islamic center three blocks from the World Trade Center into an incendiary issue, causing American Islamophobia to explode in frenzy and rear its ugly head. The media can light this fuse with incredible ease and raise passions without thinking, without careful thought, without accurate information and without regard to the truth. Fueled by ignorance, the truth has no chance of winning out.

Next in Part II -- the politicians get involved …


*Richard Peres is an American writer living in İstanbul.
27 August 2010, Friday